Alum in Action: Citizens Can Drive Democracy, Even After a SCOTUS Ruling

Xiao Wang at the Great Hall
Xiao Wang, an assistant professor at the Law School, an affiliated faculty member at the Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy and an expert on the U.S. Constitution, speaks to a crowd at the Great Hall on Monday, Constitution Day. 

Recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court have prompted a spate of state ballot measures across the country seeking to counter those rulings – a case in point is the upcoming vote in Ohio to enshrine protections for reproductive access after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.

Such citizen-driven movements are not aberrations arising in our current political climate, however, said Xiao Wang, an assistant professor at the Law School and an affiliated faculty member at the Frank Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy. In fact, they may be a powerful tool for fortifying our democracy in the long run.

Wang, a member of Batten’s first graduating class in 2009, spoke to a packed room at Garrett Hall on Monday in celebration of Constitution Day. The Batten School is the official host for the University of Virginia for programing on the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. 

In a short recap of constitutional history, Wang described how a century ago the Supreme Court issued a series of pivotal rulings that were met with tremendous opposition by states and individuals. At each juncture, a handful of states enacted their own constitutional process to allow citizens to come forth with ballot measures for public votes that would set policy in that state.  

“There’s a throughline between what we had in the past and where we are today,” Wang said. Today, of the 26 states allowing for initiatives or referenda, 21 enacted the measures between 1898 and 1918.

Xiao Wang speaks to the audience

Wang’s research focuses on drawing parallels between unpopular judicial decisions and what he calls “direct democracy,” when voters take constitutional interpretation into their own hands through initiatives and referenda.

“Our constitution is not frozen in time, it’s always changing – how we read it, how we use it, how we apply it and how it applies to us. It’s a conversation we have to continually have,” he said. 

New constitutional and legal questions are always emerging, he said, most recently as obstacles blocking the results of citizen referenda. He cited examples in Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio in which either a governor or the state Supreme Court overrode citizen ballots on issues involving Medicaid, voting rights and medical marijuana. 

“Imagine being in one of those states, that you supported one of those initiatives and worked hard to form coalitions and convert others to your position, and then how it feels when the governor says, ‘Great, thanks, but we’re not doing it,’” Wang said. “It’s no wonder the vast majority of Americans feel disillusioned with government.”

Yet he urged the students in the audience to resist disillusionment, no matter where their career leads them, whether in the public or private sector. 

“You’re here at Batten because there’s a part of you that believes there can be a way to change public policy for the good. Never forget that.” 

Read Wang’s bio here. 


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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